Battle for Reelection Likely, Despite Boom
By Daniel LeDuc
As he prepares to deliver his fourth State of the State address today, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) appears well poised to launch his bid for a second four-year term.
The actual campaign may be tougher than most incumbents are likely to face in these boom times, largely because Glendening remains far from personally popular with many Marylanders.
But the governor who began his administration with a disastrous series of missteps has plodded forward, methodically pushing ahead with a program that many analysts of both parties agree is generally popular with voters.
Glendening has showered money on local schools, pushed through tough restrictions on handgun ownership, enacted a workplace smoking ban and won praise for his decisive action to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
He has displayed nimble political footwork when necessary. After initially resisting the idea, he won approval for a 10 percent income tax cut last year, stealing an issue his Republican rival had used to great effect four years ago.
All this, and the good fortune of a thriving economy, has left Glendening with a lot to brag about in the coming election year. Just yesterday, the governor was crowing about the 50,000 jobs created in Maryland last year, a nine-year low in unemployment and more new businesses created than in 45 other states.
"The state is in very good shape. The economy is very strong," Glendening said, as he announced his plans for spending the state's $283 million budget surplus on paying for a phased-in income tax cut and to provide more money for school construction.
The irony is that for all his accomplishments, the governor faces a difficult reelection campaign, as a poll released yesterday underscores. Maryland Public Television reported last night that a new survey by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research shows a statistical dead heat between Glendening and his leading Republican challenger, Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Political analysts said Glendening has yet to recover fully from the early news reports of special pension payments for himself and his top aides, not to mention complaints that the former Prince George's executive left his county in deep financial trouble. His push to gain state funding for a $200 million football stadium in Baltimore soured many voters in Montgomery County, one leg of his political base.
The analysts said the early controversies, combined with Glendening's less than charismatic personal style, appear to have dampened the effects of the economy and other feel-good indicators that normally would leave incumbents confident.
"He may be in better shape than he was four years ago. But four years ago, he wasn't an incumbent," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson. "He's not in as good a shape as local economic conditions may suggest. This session of the legislature is vital because he has to use the surplus to buy political support."
Glendening's rivals are hoping to capitalize on the doubts many voters have shown about the governor. The question is: Can they make voters forget about the economy and focus on him?
"The problems this incumbent has I don't think have a lot to do with policy. He certainly benefits by the overall national improvements" in the economy and crime rate, Sauerbrey said. "But I just don't sense any feeling of confidence among the people in this administration."
Sauerbrey narrowly lost to Glendening in 1994, and most analysts say she is the favorite over Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker for the 1998 nomination. Glendening's leading Democratic rival, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, has yet to make strong inroads against the governor. Nevertheless, she said Maryland voters have lost confidence in Glendening.
"It's important we have the strongest Democrat we can have for the general election. I'm Ellen Sauerbrey's worst nightmare," she said.
The governor is hoping this year's session will not turn fractious like the last several, and legislators say he probably will get what he wants. Glendening's proposal to spend $29 million to expand health care for children whose parents don't qualify for Medicaid but can't afford insurance, takes advantage of federal money and is generally welcomed by lawmakers in both parties.
The governor's proposals to provide more help to the parents of disabled children, to increase higher education spending by $635 million over the next four years and to boost money for local school construction also are considered popular.
And there is plenty in the last three years to boast about, too, said allies of the governor.
Glendening's handling of environmental issues will play well with Maryland voters, they said. He has instituted rules that direct development into areas that have, or soon will have, the roads and other infrastructure to support it. And he moved quickly to close waterways and launch an inquiry last summer when an outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida sickened people and killed 30,000 fish along the Eastern Shore and in several Chesapeake Bay tributaries; he plans to announce a long-term program to deal with the pfiesteria problem in his speech today,
After some initial hesitation, the governor has also gained political mileage out of his strong opposition to casino gambling and slot machines at race tracks.
Glendening and his advisers said they are confident that they are well-positioned for this election year, with the economy bustling and people -- according to the governor's polls -- generally happy with the direction of the state. One of his strongest potential challengers, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), considered a challenge but decided against it.
Now, one of the questions facing the governor is how effective he will be in communicating his message. Events such as today's State of the State, which begins at noon and will be broadcast live on Maryland Public Television, are important opportunities to burnish an image and make inroads with voters.
Glendening's speeches in his first two years "felt like he was reading a speech," said Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery). But she said last year's showed some improvement as Glendening's oratorical abilities increased.
Still, the governor's detractors said there is little Glendening can do to boost his popularity, no matter what the economy is doing or the initiatives he proposes or how well he delivers the message.
"The governor doesn't seem to be able to shake the first impressions he made in January-February of 1995," said Carol Arscott, a GOP strategist and consultant. "It doesn't seem to matter what he does, no matter the program he proposes."
Glendening supporters note the high approval ratings President Clinton enjoys because of the economy and despite allegations about his personal life. A similar formula will be at work this year in Maryland, they said.
But Arscott rejected that idea: "With all due respect, as politicians go, Parris Glendening is no Bill Clinton. He doesn't have that residual charm to draw on."
Said Brad Coker, a state pollster: "His problem is, he champions popular causes, but people just don't like him. It's a credibility problem. It's a personality problem. You read about Reagan and Clinton being the Teflon presidents. He's the flypaper governor. Everything sticks."
In Mason/Dixon polling, Glendening's job approval ratings have never reached 40 percent, with a low in September 1996 of 24 percent, which was down from his highest rating of 38 percent in January of that year.
Coker said such ratings mean that Glendening is the most vulnerable of the 18 governors up for reelection this year.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company